E. Faye Butler is finding her voice
For E. Faye Butler, it’s still a little surprising when she belts out songs onstage and receives the audience’s warm response. She’s a classically trained actor who built her career on musicals, but singing was never part of the plan.
The Chicago native was more interested in performing Shakespeare classics, but after graduating from theater school, Butler found jobs for black actors were limited. She was often offered parts as maids and washerwomen, roles that she wasn’t interested in. So she began singing in musicals, the bread-and-butter of the theater industry, and hasn’t looked back since.
Butler is starring in the title role of the Center Stage production of Caroline, or Change, a Tony Award-winning musical that opens Wednesday and continues through Jan. 18. She plays Caroline Thibodeax, an African-American housekeeper for a Jewish family. The musical, written mostly by Tony Kushner, takes place in November of 1963 and mixes blues, gospel and Jewish melodies. Butler says she owns this part, even though it is the role of a housekeeper, something she would have turned down when she started her career. But she says the story is a reflection of the times – the turbulent ’60s – when the country was on the precipice of change. It’s a theme that Butler says she can relate to the present day.
In a recent phone conversation with Butler, who had just arrived in Baltimore to begin rehearsals for the production, she spoke, among other things, about her career and about how Caroline, or Change reflects current events.
How are you enjoying Baltimore, so far?
I love Baltimore, I love the culture, the architecture. A lot of my in-laws live in the D.C. metro area. It is a very familiar area. [Baltimore] is one of my favorite cities on the East Coast, and it’s a hidden gem. I love the homes. I love how warm the people are. There are some things that are just totally Baltimore. There are some things that I don’t even eat until I get to Baltimore: crabs, Tastykakes, Utz potato chips, the Berger cookies, crab cakes.
You are a classically trained actress who never had any intentions of singing, but essentially you have built your career on performing musicals.
I went to school and was trained classically, but they weren’t hiring. Especially during that time in the ’70s, they just weren’t hiring black girls to do anything besides be the maid and things of that nature. Someone asked me did I sing, and I didn’t sing. I sang in the choir, but never as a lead singer.
I found I could work a lot more and make money if I worked in musicals than I could in straight plays. There weren’t as many roles that people were willing to cross over with than there were in musicals. So I began to do musicals, and it has become the thing that has sustained me all these years. I do plays, and I enjoy doing them a great deal, but I don’t get to do them as often as I would like. Were you initially nervous about singing?
Oh yeah, I’m still nervous about singing; it’s not anything that I take lightly. It’s not something that rolls off of my back. It’s different when you train to do something. You know that’s the thing you want to do, so … you do it. And when you go into another realm of it, you can be blessed with a gift but not necessarily have the confidence. I sing and I appreciate the gift, but I know how difficult it is to sing.
What are some of the challenges about this play? What about it appeals to you?
It’s a chamber opera, not an opera in the true sense of what most people think it is. A chamber opera is different in that there’s very little text to it at all. The text is found within the song, so if you don’t listen carefully you won’t hear the story, because 99.9 percent of it is sung, and there are one or two spoken words here and there. It has different styles of music in it, from gospel to swing to traditional musical theater to classical music to ’60s music. … It’s a very unique piece.
You mentioned before that you didn’t want to take roles as a maid, but for this play, you are playing a maid.
I don’t think the focus is so much on her being a maid, as it is on her being a woman in 1963. [That year] was a major change for our world, especially our country. [The play] was set in November in 1963. We know what November of 1963 was – President Kennedy being assassinated, pre-civil rights, before the four little girls were killed. A lot of things were happening in our country. Young African-American people were feeling something that older people weren’t quite ready for and didn’t understand. They didn’t understand this new guy Martin Luther King and his preaching in these churches and getting our children excited and telling them they should march.
How is this play different from what you’ve done?
I think [it’s different] because it does speak to things we don’t like to think about. I think it makes everybody look at themselves, no matter what your color or status in life is. One of the biggest things in the show, too, is this little Jewish boy who basically becomes [Caroline’s] best friend – him losing his mother. The father trying to get over the fact that he’s lost his wife is [also] one of the biggest things in the show. It’s learning how to lose things or to let go. We all have to learn that. It’s a piece where you do not walk out of the theater without having to stop and think and search your soul. That makes it such a poignant piece, especially during these times. One of my favorite lines is, “Change comes fast, change comes slow, but change comes.”
I read about your playing Dinah Washington; she’s pretty big shoes to fill as a singer.
She’s such a character, it was easier to get into it. If there has been anyone who has been the most difficult to sing as a person, that’s Ella Fitzgerald because she wasn’t a bigger than life character.
Her life was her music and music was her life. That was probably the most daunting singing task I’ve had. There’s no place to hide away from Ella, ’cause Ella didn’t have a jaded past. She was a good girl.
She didn’t have a colorful life story. She sang, and when she stopped singing she died a month later. That was a lot more difficult because she’s an icon. You say “Ella” in any country in the world, everybody knows her.
Tell me about your family.
I have a wide range of friends and family that have nothing to do with the theater. I think that’s part of the reason I enjoy what I’m doing and my work, ’cause I don’t make it my life. It’s just one of those things that’s part of my life. This is not my life; this is what I do for a living. I have a life that has nothing to do with performing.
That’s rare to be able to achieve that balance, particularly with your hectic lifestyle, traveling …
In this business you can’t wait on something to happen to begin your life. Whatever is gonna happen, it’s gonna happen in the process. So you can’t say, “I’m gonna wait till I get this big show or this movie or I have million dollars before I have a husband or a family or a home.” Things happen; it’s like life. It interrupts your plans.
I took a major cue from watching people around me drowning in this business. I was like, I really don’t want to be like that. I wanted to have a normal life. I like coming home, and nobody on my block knows what I do. They just think I travel a lot. A lot of my neighbors have no clue. One of my neighbors came up to me about two months ago – I was doing a big show in Chicago. My picture was on the bus and the cabs and all that stuff, billboards. She was like, “There was a woman I saw looked just like you on a cab the other day.” I said, “Really, that’s nice.”
Were you in Chicago for President-elect Barack Obama‘s victory speech?
It was a very serene day. Although it was a Tuesday, it felt very much like a Sunday. Very quiet. It was very warm in Chicago that day. It was like 75 degrees. Very unusual weather. We were excited, but not in an overanxious way. It was like a top on a boiling pot that was simmering. Everybody was just going about their daily business and just being very serene and very quiet. But then around 5 or 6 o’clock you could sense the excitement.
Do you know him personally?
I have met him. For us in Chicago, he’s always been a community activist. People in Chicago, we are very familiar with him. When you are a community activist, it’s very different than being a politician, and I think that’s the charm that he has and that’s where his charisma lies. If you’re in Chicago, you know what that is. It’s because he always reached out to communities. He was in the nursing homes and housing projects trying to get people heat and trying to get them insurance and trying to help old people get their Social Security straight, and holding fundraisers to help kids get better books and schools. He was doing that when he was really young. He has always been a part of our community, so for us, it wasn’t like, “Where did this guy come from?” He didn’t just move to Chicago and all of a sudden become a senator and all of sudden become president to us – he was always in our community. We knew him.
So, do you still live on the South Side of Chicago?
I still do. [People] ask you what church you’re going to and what you’re doing today. You don’t get ahead of yourself. You don’t believe all the press clippings. My mother was extremely proud of me. She passed away this past year. She always said to me, “Don’t you forget, I’m the only star in the family.” My grandmother is still alive; she’s 98.
I have so many responsibilities that have nothing to do with the theater. I watched her vote. I told her, “Grandma, there’s a colored president.” She doesn’t get why you would want to be called black.
She came through at a time when you were colored or Negro. She said, “He made it?” [Then] she said, “Sure enough, that is beautiful.”